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On the road with the Joads, we can almost taste the gravy and hard biscuits

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

In John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, forced off their farm by the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, head west to the promised land of California. Impoverished and immiserated, three generations of them pile on top of a chimerical vehicle they’ve welded together out of a wrecked truck bed and a jalopy. Unsurprisingly, in a novel that concerns itself with the material realities of life, Steinbeck places appropriate emphasis on the cooking and sharing of food –his account begins with an al-fresco meal: a jack rabbit served up to Tom Joad, the eldest son, shortly after he arrives back at the farmstead having been in jail, to discover the land desiccated and the family gone.

Meagre meals

Throughout The Grapes of Wrath there are precise descriptions of meagre meals: gravy and hard biscuits, bread baked with scratchings of cornflour and a long riff centring on the behaviour and attitudes of a couple working at a roadside lunch counter, who all day long deal with the endless caravan of penniless refugees. Steinbeck interspersed his tale with these interludes, which examine the consciousness of people variously located in the economic order: car salesmen, bankers, cops and other officials. He does this unashamedly and didactically, as a way of educating his readers regarding the human consequences of a downswing in the cycle of laissez-faire capitalism. The book was a cause célèbre when it was published in 1939 and Steinbeck was accused of being every shade of a red, from puce liberal to incarnadined commie.

Eighty years after the events the novel depicts we found ourselves driving through the American south-west: a couple of well-padded leftists ensconced in their hired Hyundai, together with a brace of want-for-nothing kids; and, by way of echoing Steinbeck’s didacticism – albeit in a minor key – we downloaded the Grapes audio book so we could play it as we bucketed along through California, across Nevada and a corner of Utah, before looping back towards Los Angeles across the Mojave Desert.

Then a strange thing happened: in the continuously present fictional inscape of Steinbeck’s novel, the Joads were trundling across the California state line and along Highway 40. Meanwhile the Selfs were headed out of Las Vegas south-west along Highway 15; all things being supernaturally equal, the two families would coincide at Barstow. To give this weirdness a swerve, I took a left on to the Kelbaker Road and headed across the undulating plain studded with Dr Seuss Joshua trees towards Kelso.

In his paean to the south-west, Scenes in America Deserta, the architectural critic Reyner Banham wrote: “in 1980 no historical or other explanation can make the station at Kelso look any less improbable than it does at first sighting – the grove, the lawns, the brick paving, the Hispanic building bearing, in fine ‘Railway Ionic’ lettering, the blunt name of a rainswept township in the Scottish border country”. It was 32 years later and 108 degrees in the shade when we pulled into the parking lot at Kelso and switched off the Joads, and yes the immaculate station building with its arched colonnade looked just as improbable. There were still freight cars halted on the tracks, still the green shock of palm fronds and the viridian of well-watered lawns, but once inside it became clear that the station was no longer the same at all.

Taco swell

“The lunchroom and any other facilities,” Banham had written, “exist only to serve the Union Pacific. It’s an oasis of civilisation and style in the middle of nothing, but it’s someone else’s private oasis – not ours.” Banham had felt the presence of Taco Bell wrappers in the Kelso Station rubbish bins surpassing strange. But that was then; now, we wouldn’t be surprised if a Mars probe beamed back images of Taco Bell wrappers crumpled on its canal sides.

Then the station was theirs – now it was ours, and by ours I mean us tourists who descend on a landscape once fertile with possible meanings and reduce it to a fine dust of digitised certainties. The cream-painted and darkwood- floored rooms that once housed a telegraph office, luggage depot and dormitories now housed replicas of these. It was all beautifully done. A plump, pink couple with two plump, pink children came in and sat at the counter at right angles to us. We ordered hotdogs, garden salads, coffees and cokes – so did they, employing the same resolutely English accents. Steinbeck, I felt certain, would’ve had something to say about this: we hadn’t avoided the Joads at all – they were out there in the noonday swelter, skulking from window to window, pressing their emaciated faces to the panes and looking in on this unreality.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis